What Dinovember’s creators learned about creativity & imagination

Refe & Susan Tuma, parents & the creators of Dinovember

This post originally appeared on Silicon Prairie News.

Before Dinovember, Refe Tuma says he and his wife, Susan, felt the way lots of parents probably do.

While the couple loved raising their four kids — now ages 7, 5, 3 and 1 — it was difficult to find time to pursue projects they were passionate about. In Refe and Susan’s case, creative disciplines like art and music.

“(Being a parent) takes a lot of time, and the stuff we want and the stuff we feel is part of who we are can be put on the back burner because it feels impractical when you have kids,” Refe said. “It’s so hard to make time or space or energy to pursue those things.”

“What we learned through Dinovember is that really that doesn’t have to be the case. Dinovember ends up being a great way for us to pursue this fun, creative project and get to use this part of ourselves that we can kind of let atrophy a little bit as we raise our young kids. Now we get to do this all the time, and the kids are right here with us. They’re involved, they’re our audience and they’re the reason we’re doing this, all in one. This has been an incredible experience and really changed the way we approach being a parent, a creative and an adult human.”

While Dinovember evolved as a way to inspire his children’s imaginations, Refe says he and Susan have both learned a lot about what it means to be creative in day-to-day life as well.

“I think that the important thing is to approach it practically,” Refe said. “It might not seem like having plastic dinosaurs destroy your house every night for a month is very practical, but each night we look around and see what we have to work with and that’s what we use.

“For us, Dinovember was all things we have. We have our house, we have our stuff, we have our kids and they have their toys. Those are really the pieces that we, by some happy accident, combined to make what Dinovember is now, and I think that’s something that is pretty universal. Whether you have kids or a challenge or an obstacle that’s keeping you from pursuing what you want to do, it’s about realizing we can take whatever is in our lives and turn it into something that is beautiful or wonderful or successful if we just are willing to let our circumstances into the picture and not try to pretend or wish those circumstances were different.”

The Tumas’ book — “What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night” — hits stores Tuesday and chronicles even more adventures from the plastic dinosaurs who have become infamous during November and well after.

“All the photos are shot in our house so it’s funny to be putting this book out there,” Refe said. “It’s like we’re opening up our messy house to the world to come into and wander around in. That’s definitely an interesting feeling. But we figure we have four kids, our house is going to look like dinosaurs have terrorized it anyway so we might as well run headlong into it.”

The Dawn of the Dinosaurs

Two years ago, Refe and Susan were exhausted. Their two-year-old son was having trouble sleeping and woke up four or five times most nights, which meant not a lot of sleep and even less energy the following morning.

“This had been going on for a good two years and mornings were especially bad because the (other) kids would wake up from a wonderful night’s sleep and we were zombies,” the Kansas City father said.

“So we really were looking for ways to give the kids something to look forward to in the morning and redirect the ship a little bit, to get going back in a healthier direction even though we were so tired.”

Then one night Susan was putting away the kids’ toys when she happened upon some plastic toy dinosaurs that had been hers years ago. On a whim she set the toys up on the bathroom sink brushing their teeth, complete with toothbrushes and toothpaste.

“At first, we didn’t give it another thought,” Refe said.

But the next morning when their kids woke up, something had changed.

“Our four-year-old daughter ran into our room and jumped on the bed saying that the dinosaurs had come to life last night and were brushing their teeth. Once we saw our daughters’ faces and they were just immediately convinced their toys had come to life, we knew we had to do it again.”

So they did. And then kept the dinosaurs’ adventures going for the rest of the year’s eleventh month, forevermore known as Dinovember. About halfway through November 2012, Refe says he and Susan began photographing the dinosaurs’ antics.

“The first year we started taking pictures of the dinosaurs partway through because the kids were starting to talk about it to their friends or aunts and uncles, and everyone was asking us, ‘What’s going on at your house?’”

At first, the Tumas shared the first Dinovember photos through their personal Facebook pages and by the second year, Refe said the pair was looking for an easier way to share the dinosaurs’ photos and story behind them.

So he created a Facebook page and wrote a Medium post. Then, literally overnight, Dinovember went viral.

“What ended up happening was it was read by something like two million people in the first 48 hours, which was a complete shock and surprise and really not the intention at all,” Refe said. “When we saw that and it started being syndicated by Huffington Post and talked about in The Wall Street Journal and all these other places, people started pouring onto the Facebook page and talking about the photos and saying that they were going to do (Dinovember) in their own home.”

At last count, Refe says people in more than 50 countries celebrate Dinovember in their own homes. They also have received more than 6,000 photos of other dinosaurs’ messes, something he says his kids love to scroll through.

“They love to see the messes that the dinosaurs make in other peoples’ houses. They really feel a sense of pride that it was their dinosaurs that incited this plastic dinosaur revolution around the world. They feel like their dinosaurs were the ones who tipped the scale and started this invasion.”

So how do they do it?

“We rarely have a plan,” Refe said. “One thing that anybody who knows us would be able to tell you is that we’re not so much the planning types. We tend to fall on the spontaneous end of things.”

“The kids go to bed and we look around the house and decide ‘What will the dinosaurs get into tonight?’ We never really bought things specifically for it or did a lot of pre-planning.”

And that’s pretty much the gist of it. One night the dinosaurs spray-painted a wall. Another night they hosted a Play-Doh sculpture class. They do everything you’d expect toy dinosaurs to do — even outside of the month of November.

“The dinosaurs make appearances for our kids at key moments throughout the year and sometimes just for fun,” Refe said. “What has been fun is to watch how Dinovember and other things that we do as a family have helped our kids to feel like they have permission to do fun stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into specific categories.”

They’ve taught the family it’s alright to make big messes and take chances — like dumping 600 pounds of ice onto the kitchen floor for the sake of dinosaurs’ fun and their first book.

And sometimes, Refe says that good ideas don’t work out how you plan. Take the cardboard box moonscape, complete with dinosaurs in tin foil astronaut costumes, that he and Susan attempted last Dinovember.

“It ended up taking forever and no matter what we did it looked awful,” he said. “It was one of the most elaborate we’d done and was just not working.”

As soon as his kids hopped out of bed though, Refe realized none of that mattered.

“What we’ve come to learn about our kids, and really kids in general, is that they can fill in the gaps themselves. That’s what’s so great about the way they think and use their imaginations. They can see the box with the grey and the dinosaurs with antennas and they might as well be there on the moon with them. And that’s plenty for them.

“We were trying to make it something we thought looked right when really the kids had more than enough imagination.”